The West Wing has long been one of my favorite TV shows — it ranks with Breaking Bad as the best small-screen series of all time. One of the unusual aspects of The West Wing is that it emphasized character over plot — yes, there were some notable plot lines, such as one involving the attempted assassination of the president — but in the end, they were all about developing the characters we came to grow and love.
The West Wing was the brainchild of Aaron Sorkin, so when I saw that he had made his Hollywood debut as a director with Molly’s Game, I knew I had to see it. I expected, that like The West Wing, it would feature well-written dialogue and strong character development that would overshadow an intricate plot. Indeed, that was the case.
Based on the real-life story of Molly Bloom, a former skier on the U.S. Olympics team who entered the world of high-stakes illegal gambling, Molly’s Game isn’t so much a biopic as it is a character study. (Please, don’t let that deter you from seeing this.) The title itself is a play on words, for while Molly’s game of poker is the most obvious meaning, the film is more about the Molly’s game of life.
Who is this Molly? Like most of us, she defies all attempts we might make at one-dimensionalizing her. At times, Molly — played by Jessica Chastain, who likely will win an Oscar nomination for her role here — appears as the savvy businesswoman. At other times, the takes on the appearance of what one character calls the Cosmopolitan version of herself. She is capable of being as brave as she is vulnerable. She likes to think of herself as having integrity — and at one point she risks all to demonstrate it — yet it was her succumbing to temptation that put her in the cross-hairs of the FBI. She hobnobs with some of the most famous names of business and Hollywood, yet she carries an edge of shyness and timidity. We see the character largely from the real Ms. Bloom’s point of view, since the film is based on her autobiography, one she desperately needs to become a bestseller. Even so, her flaws are not whitewashed.
Supporting characters, too, refuse to let themselves be defined by a single adjective. There’s the emotionally abusive father (don’t all Olympians have an overbearing parent somewhere?) whom we can almost believe when he explains why he did what he did. There’s the money-grubbing lawyer who takes Molly’s case even though has to know he is unlikely to get paid. And of course, there are the gamblers — and none of them pursue poker as their only game.
Some of the reviewers who have panned this film seem disappointed that this film doesn’t have clear winners and losers, that we never get a real chance to cheer a victory or boo a defeat. But they’re missing the point of what Sorkin is doing here. He is not so much interested in having us cheer for Molly as he is in letting us get to know her. At that, he totally succeeds.
I’ll give Molly’s Game 3.5 out of four stars.
Photo by Arnaud Fraioli, CC BY-ND 2.0.